Sunday, May 23, 2010

When Africa Raids Africa

So often there is a lot of attention on the Chinese here in Africa as a country that is here to loot and plunder, thinking little about environmental or social concerns. I remember an Economist issue I received one week in college that presented on the front cover China to be "the new colonists". In a lot of ways this is true, as I noted in a posting in late January. In Maputo I talked with John van Duursen, a co-founder of the BiD Network who has recently started up a business-driven conservation challenge in partnership with World Wildlife Fund. He explained the unsustainable logging practices in Africa by the Chinese - for example, clear cutting entire 100-year-old mahogany forests that he has seen.

About a week ago, during a game of pool in which I was teamed with my flatmate and was an utter embarrassment, we met Abou (pronounced like the monkey in Aladdin), "Cool", and one other guy whose name I can't recall. They were all involved in gemstone mining. Apparently, Mozambique has recently come into the spotlight for gemstones like ruby and tourmaline. They kept talking about aquamarine. They were explaining to us that they've only been in town for a few weeks and said, basically, "once I get that score, I'm out of here. All it takes is one rock." They've got Mozambicans out in the bush looking for them.

Now, I don't know what kind of practices are being employed in this mining operation and if or what kind of concessions are being given to the government, but what makes this all the more interesting is that they are all Africans. Abou is half Malian, half Zambian; Cool is French but both parents are from Zambia; and the other guy, I believe, is Mozambican. All with some connections to Europe, they carry a European sense of sophistication, though at the core you can tell they are African. They complained about life in the West, how they didn't feel "free", and their desire to come back and live in Africa. To me, gemstone mining comes with negative connotations. But as I said, I don't know if they are doing this legally or illegally, so all else being equal, I have no qualms with Africans (or those with African heritage) getting in on the loads of opportunity here. Right now, the vast majority of businesses here are owned by Indians or Indian-heritage Mozambicans, with the black Mozambicans serving as the workers. The Chinese, of course, are here too. Maybe gemstone mining isn't the ideal industry, but the country could definitely use more examples of native Mozambicans to serve as entrepreneurial examples.

We caught up with them this weekend, and made plans with Abou when I saw him in a restaurant. He greeted me in a hilarious white shirt studded with shiny fake gemstones in place of buttons (it was kind of like a banker wearing a tie made from stitched-together dollar bills). They had still failed to find anything, but remained hopeful. Regardless of whether there is even a serious moral question to be posed here, it is so fascinating to see yet another avenue of opportunity in Mozambique that is just now becoming explored. A 2-gram ruby, they told us, would fetch you $72,000 in the States, and Andrew and me, holding US passports, were in the perfect position to get into the trade. We'll see how my other job prospects pan out first, but hey, it's always good to have options.

Friday, May 14, 2010


On a late March Saturday morning around 11am, I found my way to Hotel Milenio, decked out in a red Mozambican Mambas jersey. A good Mozambican friend of mine, Josue, had invited me to go with him to the Mozambique-Malawi soccer game that was being played in town. A couple of my friends were quick to jump on the opportunity and tagged along. Josue, having lived most of his life in Malawi, actually once played on the U-17 national team for the Flames. He thinks he had a chance of going pro had he not decided to quit after his friend died on the field and his mother feared for him. Yet, Josue still knows a lot of the national team players he once played with. And so we set our compasses in the direction of Hotel Milenio, where the team was staying to join the pre-game shenanigans. A bunch of Malawians had flown in for the game, and you better believe that any fan who flew in to support the team was going to be nuts. Of course, I didn’t know we were going to be Flames groupies for the day, so I felt quite embarrassed by my jersey. Amidst a hoard of riotous Malawians, we watched as Mozambique won the game but Malawi won the series by goals. I think my favorite part came when a Malawi chant started up: “I…want to be…nakedie!” As this happened, two men, and unfortunately one large women started stripping down to their underwear. Could have done without that.

But our relationship isn’t all about fun and games. I first met Josue back in January while working for TechnoServe on the chicken study. He works for New Horizons poultry company and was part of my study, and out of our work together he invited me into his home and has even taken me to his church little one-room cinder-block church in the bairro (suburb). Getting to know Josue has been great – he’s an extremely fascinating and impressive individual. He and his wife Sakina have a 3-year old girl and an adopted son (you don’t see that often in Mozambique). Prior to working at New Horizons he worked at World Relief while taking college classes. He’s currently involved as a forming member with Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM), which is an emerging party trying to take down the dominant FRELIMO. He comes from a political background – his father was captured during the civil war by RENAMO, now works for the Mozambican government, and while previously working for the Malawian government, was in the committee that wrote the national anthem.

Currently, I’m trying to push the few buttons I have (being American) to get Josue funding for a training trip on soybean processing and poultry in Minnesota, but most of our interactions now are actually about an idea he shared with me in January. At New Horizons he has worked in the feed mill (dealing with corn and soybean) and as I mentioned, he lived in Malawi, which is basically where corn-soya blend (CSB) was invented. Out of these experiences has come his desire to start a commercial CSB company (he's holding his product in the picture, and man does it taste good!) to not only earn money but also combat malnutrition. So now, as I am working with CLUSA on soy foods, Josue is one of our potential entrepreneurs. Josue and I bounce ideas off each other almost on a daily basis – me helping him with his business plan or machinery costing, for example. The past week or so we have been preparing for a test marketing trial run of his CSB in the Nampula bairros with the help of local university students. This is a very exciting time to be in the thick of launching a business in a developing country.

I am already beginning to think back on my experiences on this fellowship. What really sticks out are not the tourist shops I wandered in, the amazing beaches, or even the baffling vistas gazed during a difficult mountain hike. It’s not the countries that stand out to me (though I’m constantly craving Indian food). Rather, it’s the one or two people in each country who have become quite good friends, and from whom I learned a lot. Josue is one of them. And when I say learning I am not talking just about poverty, but about who I am and who I want to be. In college and at home, I’m around people who characteristically are quite different: we don’t have the same career interests but share the same behavior, which is great for enjoyment but not for understanding other lifestyles. But abroad, my friends are people who have such varied personalities. Through living with them I’m learning with who I mesh well and through their personalities understanding my own. And, we simply have some great times together. I won’t go back to visit the countries; I’ll go back to visit these friends.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Beach Means Business (and pretty good times)

Riding along a bumpy dirt in the back of a covered pickup truck, crammed in with pumpkins and a big pile of wood, we were excited about our bolea (means “hitchhike” in Portuguese, or “ride” when it’s thrown around informally in English). My colleague Andrew, our friend Toan (pronounced “Twan”), and I were heading to Carrusca, a little beach resort (pic 1) a few kilometers down the road from the nearest town Chocas. Andrew and I have been taking weekend trips to different Peace Corp sites to visit our friends (which has given me a pretty good idea of whether I ever want to do Peace Corp), and this one happened to be right next to probably the nicest beach I’ve ever been to. Sand as white as pearls, water so clear you can see to the bottom, and enormous palm trees heavy with coconuts. Seven of us found our way to a couple little huts for a genuinely good weekend.

But I’m getting sidetracked. When we got out of our bolea, with my butt in pain from the pile of wood and Toan and Andrew pretty soaked with sweat, we chatted for a minute with the driver. She was a young Dutch woman who happened to be starting a 5-star resort right next to Carrusca. The resort was done, but the staff was still being trained, and they would open in a month.

It seems like every day I run into someone starting a business, whether it’s agriculture, industry, or tourism. This might be because my consultancy position puts me in an environment that makes exposure more likely, but even regardless I think there are a lot of people who are just starting to dig into the loads of opportunity here. I’ve been to places like yogurt factories, feed mills, poultry farms, soy foods factories, chili pepper farms, cashew factories and I’ve talked with all kinds of business owners, from those at bakeries to trading companies. I’ve seen a LOT of new business activity, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

My basic premise here is: So what if it’s a for-profit business? Can’t that work for poverty alleviation? I’ve always (trans.: since early college) thought that someday I would possibly start an NGO or a “social business” – something with social objectives, a good motto that talks of “empowerment” or “sustainability” or something like that, and maybe a website that shows how much the poor we work with have improved their lives. And maybe I still will. But regular for-profit businesses, if run in a respectable manner (i.e. paying fair wages, pollution control), can also have a big impact on the poor.

Novos Horizontes poultry company, which I visited numerous times, is doing great things for the poor, all while competing as one of the top two chicken companies in northern Mozambique. They have over 100 “outgrowers” (see pic #2) who raise flocks at their homes, which brings in much needed income to these subsistence farmers. Nutriset in France, is a fabricator of Plumpy’Nut production lines (see last two pics), which are used to produce the peanut-based therapeutic food that is used to help severely underweight children. Nutriset wants to make boatloads of money, but its product (the production machinery) is sold to NGOs, who then use the end product in development efforts.

Businesses, we know, cut the crap and get to the point. They don’t mess around with fluffy goals that can’t be measured. They’re scalable too, which means more jobs. And if you run a business in a place like Mozambique, especially if it’s related to agriculture or industry, you’re going to be employing at least a few poor Mozambicans (maybe the devil is in the details). And who are your customers? Mozambicans, of course, and they are generally poor. That 5-star resort that’s opening up – think of the workforce: I’d bet at least some of the managers and all of the attendants are locals. They’re probably not the poorest people, but I think this is how knowledge transfer happens.

Maybe I’m being na├»ve or stupid, or simply playing devil’s advocate. Maybe you can’t run a company honestly and still expect to compete with all the dirty business that goes on in a place rife with corruption like Mozambique. And maybe the way I would run the business would just put it right back into the category of “social business”, since I don’t’ want to become rich – I want my employees to become rich. There are a lot of holes in this composition, which I could object to myself, but I welcome anyone to point them out and discuss them. It would save me some thinking…I need to get back to the beach.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Back to the Future

On the morning of Monday, April 26, I woke up like any other morning. A quick 5-miler, a strained Portuguese conversation with our friendly maid, and a bowl of maize meal porridge before heading to work. When I got to work, I noticed the internet wasn’t coming through. This happens sometimes, and I just have to adjust some settings on my computer or unplug and re-plug the router. Fast forward a week, and I still don’t have internet. I tried calling my colleague upstairs to see if he had it. No cell service either.

Rumors have been circulating, but it sounds like 13 kilometers (I’ve also heard 130 kilometers…the tales grow by the day) of fiber optic cable have been damaged in the Indian ocean, taking out all telecom in north and central Mozambique. The only ways to communicate are land line phones and text messages (God help us if we revert back to letters). Even text messages didn’t initially work, but the two major cell companies got their satellites up and running on Tuesday. There’s little communication to the outside world. I was finally able to get online via satellite internet. Talk about a diamond in the rough. I can’t find any information on how the damage occurred, but I’ve heard that business is experiencing a 70% slowdown and the cell companies mCel and Vodacom could lose (or are losing?) $7 million dollars a day , which is big money in Mozambique.

So what is everyone doing? It seems a lot like when the power goes out. We’re waiting. Who knows if everyone is waiting on someone else to do something, but I have to believe that there’s too much money on the line for even the government to be twiddling its thumbs (the current and former presidents have big stakes in the cell companies). Still, every prediction I’ve heard has been that it will be 4 weeks before internet is back in over two-thirds of the country. Mozambique. Where Amazing Happens.